Just Like Home!

(137 days in)

It was a six hour flight from Nadi, Fiji to Melbourne, Australia. Within that time we learned that Fiji Airways doesn’t give you a screen on the back of your seat for such a short trip and that the mini screens they provide for everyone at once look like they’re beamed to the aircraft via shortwave radio from the 1980s. I also learned that putting a pair of noise cancelling headphones over the top of some noise cancelling earphones really helps drown out the three infants that were seated near us, much to Megan’s jealousy (M: I’ve got some fancy noise cancelling earphones that drown out background noise but still allow you to hear people talking – and babies screaming.  For six hours straight.). It was not the best flight we’ve been on, but it was the shortest so felt quite refreshing (the complimentary beer helped too). Luckily we had downloaded some shows to watch onto our various devices and before long (M: says the guy who didn’t have to listen to the screaming – did he mention that this was a night flight?) we had landed in Australia. Now, I don’t know about you but I thought Oz was supposed to be hot…

Is This London I See Before Me
Short answer: no.
Long answer: we disembarked the plane at midnight and made our way around to baggage collection, worrying that the wooden carving from Fiji – that we had been assured by the guy who sold it to us would make it into Australia – would get us arrested/deported/thrown to the dingoes etc. Just as we did when entering Fiji we had ticked yes to a couple things on the landing card just to be safe and, when the gentleman came to examine it he simply asked “This first question, is it just normal medicines you have? Or weapons?” (for some reason both of those items are under the same tick box). We just had some aspirin. He proceeded to stamp, sign and tear part of the slip away, ignoring completely that any other box was ticked.  (M: That’ll teach us to watch so much Border Security: Australia’s Front Line.)

We stepped outside, were rudely welcomed by the 9 degree weather (M: seriously, what the hell – we were still in Fiji-wear) and jumped onto the SkyBus to get into the city. It was very late at night by this time so we didn’t see much, but we did glimpse the ‘Melbourne Star’, a London Eye-style wheel illuminated by different coloured strips along its spokes.

Before long we were deposited in the bus station a short walk from our hostel, a short walk that, being as it was a Saturday night, was full of drunken city people making the most of their leisure time. This and the cold made it feel just like London, walking past bars and clubs with throngs of people trying to get into taxis or the next bar or club. But finally we made it to Kingstreet Backpackers (which was also filled with people having a merry time in the common area). Due to the late hour and the lack of sleep, we turned in almost immediately and aside from the gentleman screaming in the corridor at 4am for some unknown reason (M: for half an hour), we were happy for the rest.

The next morning arrived all too soon and it started to sink in that we were in Australia; further from home than we had been so far (by about 300 hundred miles) and a country I had always wanted to visit. Unfortunately we were still feeling the lack of sleep so found it hard to motivate ourselves up and out, but Thor: Ragnarok had recently hit the cinemas and – since we were no longer on a bunch of small islands in the middle of the Pacific but one large island – we decided a walk along the river and a show were well in order. With the gentle spring breeze, traffic, people, bars and restaurants we could have easily been walking beside the Thames. Instead, it was of course the Yarra River, which stretches 242km through the territory of Victoria (and is also a tad cleaner and prettier than our river back home). Taking in, very briefly, the sights of Federation Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral (London again, it’s almost like we colonised this place) we were at the theatre just in time for what I can now say is probably one of my favourite films of the last year or so (we have since seen it again).

Aching cheeks, split sides and laughter lines later we headed back toward the hostel, picking up supplies on the way and ready to catch up on some more of that all important sleep – we needed to pick up our rental car the next day and make the 6 hour drive onto Canberra.

In The Footsteps Of Greatness
Now I will take a brief moment to remind you all of the glorious majesty of our previous third companion, Manone. The 17′ converted Ford Transit that took us 10,560 miles around America will forever live on in our hearts (if not a small dedicated shrine once we return). He had it all: rear parking camera, built-in GPS and Bluetooth, kitchenette and a bed for heaven’s sake. He also had cup holders of a useable size, great suspension, a mover of an engine, armrests and comfortable seats.  I remind you of these things in order to have a point of reference for our next hired vehicle.

We arrived at the Jucy Car Rental lot a bit early but were confident that the car would be ready for collection. We were taken through the usual booking procedure and terms and conditions for the whole period of rental – no round-trip for us this time, we were picking up in Melbourne and dropping off in Cairns, some 1800 miles north.

We were taken around the corner of the building into the parking lot and introduced to a small Fiat Punto. After a short poke around the exterior we were shown the unnecessarily complicated semi-automatic gearbox and told what we were and weren’t allowed to do with the vehicle (don’t know about you but I can’t wait to roll any car that I drive). This car did not have a rear parking camera, nor a built-in GPS, built-in Bluetooth, a kitchenette, a bed (M: hopefully this didn’t come as a surprise to Pete), useable cupholders (M: you can’t even fit a can in them, I really don’t understand the point), good suspension or an engine that would confidently pull you over an overly large peanut lying in the road.

I will admit that we had been spoiled and ruined by the use of Manone whilst travelling around America. Had we not been upgraded by Escape we would have had a decade-old Ford E150 van which (although still with kitchen and bed) would have been a lot less comfy. Also, I will admit that we had not expected a campervan (M: oh good, he was aware) and had specifically booked a small little runner to get us up the coast, knowing how much the Aussies love their hostel culture. So it may feel that I’m being unfair to the little blighter (M: whom we have christened ‘Basic Bitch’ or BB for short), that I’m judging it with criteria it was never meant to stand up to. And yes. I am.

The Australian Capital Territory
6 hours later and I was almost used to the gearshift (you tap down to change up but the car changes down for you but not really as you would naturally so it’s a bit jerky and you have to leave it in 1st when you turn it off and it will let you go from reverse to 1st real easy but then complain with a constant beep if you take your foot off the brake in neutral – and breathe). We had arrived in a small city called Canberra, which happened to be chosen as the capital of Australia for the same reason we were staying in it: it was directly between Melbourne and Sydney. We only had the one night here but checked into a wonderful hostel run by the Youth Hostel Association. This was a lot nicer and quieter than the place in Melbourne we had just come from, and with a huge ground floor communal kitchen, was exactly what we needed after the drive.

We (and I mean the royal ‘we’ here) got to talking with a few of our fellow guests, including the couple that we were sharing a room with (a Slovenian couple on their honeymoon who had for some reason chosen to stay in hostels for most of their trip) (M: money, obviously) and a woman from the other side of the country who was in town for a training course. They mentioned a few things that we could do in the surrounding area but as we were short on time and already had our plan we sadly had to skip the majority of these.

What we did do, however, was go to the Canberra Deep Space Communications Complex (funded by NASA). As we had coffee overlooking a 70 metre radar dish that was perpetually moving and tracking many separate space objects, I thought to myself ‘this is pretty cool’. The complex itself wasn’t very large sadly so we spent about as long in the attached coffee shop as we did in the exhibit itself (it was also full of small, loud humans on some kind of field trip away from their place of captivity). Having dived into a few of the Sci-Fi classics on my Kindle during this trip I was quite intrigued to be in a place that was mentioned in one of them. To think that this very location and that very dish (probably) received the final messages from the Cassini space probe that finished its 30 year mission by (purposefully) crashing into the surface of Saturn on the 15th of September and sending back some incredible footage some 746 million miles home was pretty cool.

Surely This One Is London
From there we took a quick detour back into Canberra in order to visit a lookout with an incredible view of the parliament building and surrounding city, and then journeyed onto another youth hostel run by the YHA on the edge of Sydney, Glebe Point. As is now tradition on this adventure, we had been spoilt by our previous encounters and this place was not at all like its Canberra-based cousin. Nonetheless, it was good enough for the three nights we had booked there and with free wifi, it was a decent enough base of operations. The main problem we immediately faced is that the hostel itself had free parking like I have incredible writing talent, in that it doesn’t. It had a short stretch of road that wasn’t under a ‘No Stopping’ or ‘2 hour max’ sign right next to its door, but this was almost always taken up by either the staff or some long term residents who grabbed a space and dropped anchor. This was disappointing and quickly became – after Megan went into ask for help with the nearby parking situation – infuriating. Being quite a major city it followed the quirk of no place left uncharged and we weren’t looking forward to having to drive to different spots and pay through the nose for a space for BB. For that night at least, we had turned up after the parking restrictions had run their course for the day so we eventually found a space a short walk from the front door. Checked-in, said “hi”to the other residents of our room (one of whom was a man that would only prove he could stand up in the last hours of our stay) and decided to head back out in search of some refreshments (M: a stiff drink or five).

We took a nice stroll further into town, confirming that this was a major city purely by volume of traffic on all the roads and pavements. We had found a pub online with good reviews but on our approach, another pub, displaying a large ‘HAPPY HOUR’ sign took our interest, and there we stayed for the evening. The throng of suited ‘after school specials’ was a good sign that the establishment would have what we wanted and as they filed out through the night we eventually found an actual seat to park ourselves on. A few hours later we were fed and watered, had put the world to rights and lamented the end of our time in Fiji as well as the beginning of this new leg.

Our first full day in the city and we were determined to try to make the most of it. What this meant for beginners was slowly waking up and lazily making our way to the nearest bus stop, for which we had to buy an Oyster Opal card en route. We made it about 20 steps from the destination bus stop when, with a unanimous vote, iced coffee was requested (this type of beverage has become almost a staple of our diet, to the point where Megan is concerned she has developed a caffeine dependency – #amateur) (M: turns out I just like an afternoon nap, who knew) and luckily, we found ourselves in the glorious grounds of St. Mary’s Cathedral. I could feel my cells being rejuvenated by the caffeine, sunshine, birdsong and fountain – less so by the pack of wild tourists that had decided to be in the area as well, but still, it was a rather pleasant way to start our day (at about 12pm).

North of Sydney itself is Manly Bay, from where Megan had previously learned (M: I Googled it the night before, genius) that you can get some fantastic views of the city and possibly see some whales if you’re really lucky. This meant catching the ferry across the harbour and then a short bus trip up to the viewing area deep within Sydney Harbour National Park. We walked along the National Heritage trail, taking in the memorials and plinths dedicated to those who have given everything during the past conflicts involving the area. We were not disappointed with the panoramic vista of the city from this angle – you can see the waves crashing into sheer cliffs that line the edge of town, the whole glistening harbour with all kinds of sailing boats and ferries making their way through and of course, you can see the city itself, a stunning skyline against the gorgeous backdrop.

We had timed our trip up to Manly quite well as to best enjoy our time there but then also get the ferry back just as the sun was setting (M: Pete’s conveniently forgotten that we missed the last bus back from the park so, having walked round it for a few hours, then had to spend a further hour trudging back to civilisation – we did get to spend a very pleasant hour passing the time watching the locals surf and kayak on Manly Beach, though). Hopefully you’ve seen the pictures but they don’t honestly compare to what we were treated to, truly the best way of seeing the Sydney Opera House (which I have to admit at this point is smaller than I thought…). We also landed just in time to rush around the harbour boardwalk and catch the lightshow currently occupying one peak of the Opera House a couple of times a day. The seven minute light and sound show is dedicated to the native aboriginal people, their art and their lifestyle and I thoroughly enjoyed it, no matter how many French people had seemingly followed us onto the viewing steps. And then it was dark, we were hungry, a little tired and only slightly lamenting the public transport trip we had ahead of us but at the end of it all had decided that a good Chinese was in order. After a long search for a restaurant that was actually still open we settled on the fact that it was more effort than it was worth and instead, resorted to the large bag of pasta we had bought previously.

Half Way Day
The 9th of November marked the halfway point for this entire endeavour. 112 and a half days in since we had left Blighty on July 20th and 112 and a half days before we return again on the 1st of March. This was a big deal for me, as we had already accomplished so much and taken in a huge amount, but we still had so much more to go. In a weird sense, I think because we did so much time in America it feels like we haven’t done all that much actual travelling. Not a lot of ‘off the beaten track’ as it were and obviously not far from my comfort zone, let alone the culture that I’m used to. Fiji had opened my eyes at least to a bit more culture but nothing about it was at all hard for me to fathom, and nor was it at all ever worrying for my delicate sensibilities (M: in fact, the Fijians had disconcertingly insisted on referring to Pete and I as husband and wife to ensure that we didn’t worry theirs). Now of course we’re in Australia and probably the closest to British culture you can find outside of, well, Britain (except the ever present and infuriating metric system) (M: says the guy who has no idea what a yard is). Nonetheless, we still had so much more to see and experience that would be as far out of my comfort zone as we are away from home. But if at any point I struggle, I can remind myself that we won’t have that long left until home, which I’m sure I’ll find a lot more depressing once we’re there.

As the aforementioned parking would kick the snot out of us and our budget, we instead opted to travel out of the city and over to the Blue Mountains (M: thanks for the tip Ra!). A short drive out of the city and you find yourself in a lovely little town full of steep angles and charity shops. We seem to be getting worse at waking up early and getting out so yet again we arrived just in time for a coffee and lunch. After another short drive we found ourselves at the main viewing area for the Blue Mountains, which I have to mention now is a misnomer as I believe the area is actually a canyon with level ground around the top, not mountains with a valley (sort it out Australia).

Previously on OurQuarterLifeCrisis we have arrived at places just as another coach load of tourists have and unfortunately had to fight through a torrent of people, but here is was different – here we turned up at the same time as LITERALLY 6 COACHES. Schoolkids and tourists abound, this did not place me in the best of moods. But eventually we made it to the view, and it was stunning… but we shouldn’t have done the Grand Canyon first, as it doesn’t really have the same kind of impact that led the American version to have ‘Grand’ in the name. We took a steep staircase down to Honeymoon Bridge and then a lot more tiring trek back up, the throngs of other people making it an uphill struggle mentally as well as physically. When it was over (M: love how Pete makes it sounds like such a hardship, it really was a fantastic and very worthwhile view, and the sound of the cicadas pretty much burst our eardrums), Megan again found a souvenir penny to add to her collection and we were made our way back to the hostel.

We were determined to make up for the previous day’s food related failure by getting that damn Chinese. Given that it was our half way day, we decided to celebrate a little. Other than this though, the rest of our time was spent booking more of the upcoming Australian adventure and typing up a blog post (not this one). Which meant, after a moped had been and gone and we had gorged ourselves on Chinese food, we turned in for the night and looked to the future.

Koala Park
On the outskirts of town, just next to a busy main road that runs straight into the city, is a hut that’s backed onto some woods. We were ensured by Google that this was in fact the Koala Park Sanctuary that we had been looking for. Making sure that we were up and out before the ridiculous parking charges applied, we had arrived at the park for opening time, 9am. This meant that we were the first in and, for at least a few minutes, had the whole place to ourselves. With koalas (obviously), wallabies, dingoes, kangaroos, echidnas, penguins and a whole host of native birds (including the iconic kookabura laughing bird), Megan’s face was as pleased as it can be (from what I’ve seen anyway) as we stepped inside, ‘roo feed in hand.

There were a couple of small demonstrations and talks about the various animals, which meant we got to see two rather stubborn small penguins refusing to eat their fish and tablets as well as a resigned sheep have the fleece taken from its back. But my favourite, by far, was that we got to go into the dingo enclosure and pet the little cuties. In any other part of the country we would have been advised to not only stay well away from them but to actually defend ourselves with a large ‘dingo stick’ if need be, and yet here we were, handing out treats, asking them to sit and giving them a good rub – excellent.

It was then time to walk through the kangaroo enclosure – we had bought feed especially for it and Megan was (unsurprisingly) excited to get closer to more animals. Put simply, we walked through a large double gate into a small park-like area where there were about 15-20 grey kangaroos just going about their days. She then proceeded to get blanked by almost every single one of the creatures that she approached, finally managing to fob off the handfuls of grass on about 4 of the little fellas that didn’t actively look away as we approached (but they still failed to make eye contact).

By this time the caffeine addiction was kicking in again and since we had spent a good few hours in the place we decided that an early lunch was on the cards. To my alarm, we walked past a large cockerel that I hadn’t noticed was there until I was staring into his cold, expressionless eyes that somehow still managed to convey malice. This alarm was not helped by the fact that he was an incredibly vocal cockerel who couldn’t tell the time and just kept crowing whenever the mood struck him. But, the alarm was abated when I found out his name was Heihei (fans of the Disney film Moana will understand). Heihei proceeded to wander the hall that we ate in, every now and then testing my reaction times by appearing from under chairs around the table.

And that was our time in Sydney over. I thoroughly enjoyed all 3 cities that we travelled through and it was good to feel like we were back at home (M: for Pete at least!). We have a lot more miles to put under our belts before we’ll be done with this country and a whole lot more to see and experience, including our second natural wonder of the world, the Great Barrier Reef.

Thanks for reading and keeping up with our adventure!

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